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Feature Story September 19, 2002
John O'Neill: An Unbelievable Life
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 7 of 8
In a country where presidents are elected based on the public's deluded perception of their character over anything else, this smear job matters.
Barbara Bodine

Barbara Bodine.

Until August of 2001, O'Neill was portrayed as the hard-working, effective, dedicated FBI agent; afterwards, he was given a character grotesque enough to quash all questions into the incredible coincidences in his life. No article more definitively cemented this new biography of O'Neill than Lawrence Wright's "The Counter Terrorist" in the New Yorker's January 14th issue. And all too fittingly, Wright was also the author of the screenplay to the Bruce Willis/Denzel Washington thriller The Seige, a 1998 film about... yep, Arab terrorists who set off bombs in New York, using the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 as its inspiration, according to the film's web site. The movie focuses on overzealous American officials who use the bombings to indiscriminately round up Arab-Americans (sound familiar?); the president declares martial law and sends General Willis to lead the Army into a seige of New York in order to root out terrorist cells. Denzel Washington plays an FBI investigator; Annette Benning plays a CIA agent. It's ridiculous, I know, but it's true.

The film drew such heated protests from Arab-American groups that it was singly responsible for ushering in the return of Russian and neo-Nazi terrorist-villains in Hollywood. That is over now, of course, and not surprisingly, Wright sold the rights to his New Yorker article to MGM in February. For those who don't read highbrow magazines, the O'Neill story will forever be framed by Wright's version on celluloid as well, a version that relied very heavily on FBI insiders.

Why would top FBI people choose Wright? Put it this way: Wouldn't you, if you were the FBI, assume you'd find a friendlier ear in the guy who wrote The Seige than someone more, let's say, potentially ambitious? That the FBI and Wright came together on the definitive O'Neill story is no coincidence. Just look at their briefcase story again: the sloppy B-quality of the plot, the assumption (correct) that the audience won't question the story's holes. The FBI and Wright were made for each other, aesthetically and ideologically.

Wright certainly didn't let his FBI sources down: in his article, he achieves the impossible by portraying the briefcase incident with a straight face, placing it in the context of a series of other sloppy events which Wright's sources say occurred near the end of O'Neill's career. This pattern included an incident in which O'Neill forgot a cell phone in a taxi, which the New Yorker thought was a significant event foretelling the eventual downfall of the world's top bin Laden investigator. Paint O'Neill this way, publish it in the world of serious magazines, and you'll stop anybody from asking questions.
Wright sometimes confused B movies and reality

Wright sometimes confused B movies and reality.

Wright was given unprecedented access to the cast of otherwise top-secret players in O'Neill's life, the top echelon of the FBI, and particularly their counter-terrorism sections. This means that Wright was chosen at least as much as he chose the story, for every journalist knows that his sources and their agenda are as much of the story as the story itself. Any journalist who knows how sources like Wright's are courted (or rather, how sources choose which journalists they leak their stories to in order to shape the public perception) and doesn't have a lot of disturbing questions racing around in his head should, after reading this article, rush to his lawn, unhook the garden hose, sprint to the garage, close the door, attach the garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his Lexus SUV, sit in the car, pop in Sting, and scrawl a note saying, "Don't mourn, I was already dead!"

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Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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Automotive Section
We’re happy to introduce a new column in which we publish Moscow’s raw radio communications, courtesy of a Russian amateur radio enthusiast. This issue, eXile readers are given a peek into the secret conversations of Moscow’s traffic police, the notorious "GAIshniki."

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Everybody complains about celebrities, but nobody does anything about them. People, it’s time to stop fretting about whether we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture—we are, we have been, we’re going to be—and instead take practical steps to clean up the celebrity-obsessed culture we’ve got...


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